DEL CITY, Okla. (AP) -- Like aimless refugees, their images drift across the wind-blown plains.
One is of a smiling, pre-teen boy with feathered, brown hair grown over his ears and flecks of red mud on his face and teeth. Next to him is a broad-shouldered man standing at attention in a filth-covered military uniform.
They are among the countless photographs that went floating free from houses turned inside-out by the May 3, 1999 tornadoes in central Oklahoma.
Almost a year later, about 15,000 lost photographs have found their way to a computer lab at the Del City Metro Tech campus.
Martha Haglund sits over a tattered cardboard box full of them. She gingerly picks through the mud-frosted and insulation sprinkled photos, tossing the unsalvageable ones away. The identifiable ones, she assigns a number and puts into sealed plastic baggies, to be organized into binders later.
The photographs are as random and cryptic as the people in them. A '60s era beach party shot from too far away. A photo of a frowning woman wearing a T-shirt and two black eyes, the word "beating" written on the back of the picture.
Capturing memories from many of these pictures is like trying to harness the wind itself, their owners having built new houses, started new lives, floated perhaps as randomly as their vagabond photos.
But Kenn Bird and his patched-together network of memory builders are undeterred.
"If you look through them, probably 90 percent of them are things people love: their first child, their grandparents, their family members, maybe even some that were lost (in the tornadoes)," he said.
"Someone's got to take care of those."
An Oklahoma City-based photographer, Bird was one of thousands who pitched in to help tornado victims rebuild their lives after the tornadoes.
But as he worked loading up food for the recovery effort, he noticed something: photographs, thousands of them, scattering in the Oklahoma breeze.
"They were blowing all over the fields, so I ran out there and started gathering them up," Bird said.
Within weeks, Bird oversaw 125 photo return sites, plus a system of mobile collectors.
At the beginning, he cleaned the photographs by hand -- sometimes by himself, other days with as many as 15 other photographers.
Bird had plenty of help. Stores donated thousands of cases of plastic bags. Tulsa-based Williams scanned the photos, labeled them and catalogued them on CD. Kinko's stores across the state agreed to keep in-house copies of the CD album with thumbnails of each photo.
What Bird did not have, he said, was an accessible place to keep the actual photos.
Enter Anita Parks' Metro Tech computer graphic design class. Bird was a guest speaker there one day, lecturing about a computer photo program when he mentioned the picture recovery effort.
It immediately struck a chord with classroom assistant Phil Bohlander, who thought the class could do something to help out. After getting approval from school administrators, students voted unanimously to take over the sorting and cataloguing of the photos. Bohlander said Bird was ecstatic -- and Bohlander soon found out why.
"About two days later came 11 boxes with nearly 11,000 photographs," Bohlander said. "I was really shocked. I thought that he had about 600 or 700."
The computer lab where the class meets has now become the unofficial headquarters of the Photo OK. Project.
Stacy Standridge and her sister-in-law, Gina Standridge, spent a recent Saturday scouring the electronic catalogue after hearing about pictures of friends and family somewhere in the sea of torn and tattered images.
"I have a bunch of pictures of my mother that are about all I have left of her," said Gina Standridge. "The tornado just sucked them out. I don't know why everyone who lost something wouldn't come to look."
If they find a picture they're looking for, they'll visit the row of binders against the wall, where Bohlander is helping an elderly woman look for a photo of a friend.
Across the room, Shawna Wilson of south Oklahoma City gazes at a computer screen looking for baby pictures of her and her husband, John.
"This is the first chance we've had to come in and look," she said. "We lost most of the stuff in our attic, but we kept a good deal of our photos in books that were trapped in a cabinet."
Bohlander said about 90 percent of the people who come looking find at least one photo. He said a couple recently came in and got 70 photos that belonged to them.
"It's hard work in a way, but it's worth it when someone finds the photo they've been looking for," Bohlander said. "There was a woman who found a photo of her husband holding up a string of fish and it was the only photo she had of him after the tornado. When she found it, she just burst out in tears."
But the Metro Tech semester is soon coming to an end. And with it, Bird said he will have to look elsewhere to keep the effort going.
"I haven't found anybody to take the process on, but I'm sure someone will step up to the plate," Bird said. "If not, then they'll remain here at my place and I'll take care of it. However long it takes, we'll do it."
Meanwhile, the photographs keep coming in. From farmers in eastern Oklahoma who pick them from fields. From Boy Scout troops and citizens who find them huddled against fences or skittering down sidewalks.
Bird said he plans to keep the photos available -- even years from now.
"The insurance company will pay for a new house or car," Bird said. "A lot of people have had these photos for generations. Those are the things that are really treasured."
On the Net: http://www.tornadophotos.com